One of my oldest friends has a son who’s in his early thirties, living in Australia, great job, great apartment, he’s in the best physical shape of his life and has fantastic girlfriend. She’s amazing. Not only really cute and smart but the kind of girl that knows how to travel and has traveled the world independently.
Side note #1 — You know you’ve found someone truly special when you take a peek into their closet that first time and they have only two pairs of boots: one is for dancing and one is for actual work. (I know because I was married to a woman like that many years ago.)
The problem is he’s unhappy. Yes great job, great gal but he’s dissatisfied. He asked his dad the other day, “Am I settling?” and wow did that ring a bell for me because I’ve been there. I have an amazing memory and I could literally find the exact journal and the exact page of session notes with my therapist where I asked almost the exact same question at the exact same age, “Am I settling?”
For me I thought I was in the middle of an early midlife crisis. I didn’t understand why I was unhappy and was desperately trying to figure it out. I had a wonderful wife, an amazing job with great coworkers, was playing squash three times a week and in incredible physical shape, had a home and cat and dog and I was suffering in mental anguish and asked my therapist, “Am I having a midlife crisis?”
“No!” was the answer back which was the correct answer.
Side note #2 — I’ve since been in a real midlife crisis and it wasn’t anything like that.
HOWEVER (and this is really important) he/we made the mistake of looking for an answer to the misery. We have this massive therapeutic apparatus that is champing at the bit to go digging to find answers. Any answers. To any challenge. And that’s fucked up because what is happening has never (or at least rarely) happened in human history: we have people that are absolutely thriving. Doing really well. Great in fact. They’re so far up Maslow’s Hierarchy that there isn’t a single elder that can guide them through the next stage of the process.
Here I was facing challenges that my grandparents couldn’t even conceive of as they were indigenous to a life of severe poverty coming out of the Great Depression and then the utter backbreaking hardship of the Second World War and so roof over the head and not six feet below ground life was good. That was enough for them. My parents both had room and board growing up and in fact when I would get “uppity” as my dad liked to call it he’d hit me with, “What you think you’re the star border?” and I had no idea what the fuck he was even talking about.
My mom joked that she hated my dad so bad at times that she often calculated while cooking his dinner how hard she could hit him in the head with a frying pan without killing him. Love and belonging was something they both struggled with throughout their lives and as you can imagine it became my primary mission in life to find a partner who was a friend, a confidante, a true companion. Someone who had an education and a career and who’d be free to leave the marriage at any time and never be locked in because of kids. Any child who has grow up a burden to their parents want’s to make sure that pattern is broken forever.
And so I was rocking it… I had levels 1,2,3 and 4 pretty much locked in. Now nobody’s perfect, no relationship is perfect, no job or organization that you’ll ever work for is perfect and we all have neighbors and have to learn to love thy neighbor but what nobody seems to pick up on is that when you’ve satisfied those needs you immediately start working on the next level. That’s what it means to be human and that’s exactly what I did but I didn’t have a guide, I didn’t have anybody to say to me, “Matt you’re looking for self actualization and this is what the work is. This is how you begin to do this stage of development.”
We have millions of kids born since 2000 that have had all four levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy for a solid 18 years growing up and then off to college and then life. And they are bored out of their minds. From a lower perspective on the Hierarchy it can look like lazy or spoiled or unmotivated and there’s often an envious reaction that it’s like some secretly hope that these kids are kicked down a few rungs… “That’ll teach the ungrateful bastards!”
We should be celebrating that humanity has brought so many so far up Maslow’s and sure if you have kids or your organization goes bankrupt or if you have health issues it’s like getting your teeth kicked in and knocks you down a few levels but we shouldn’t be wishing that for anyone.
What we want is to pull more people up out of poverty, out of illness, out of survival and get everyone moving up the ladder. Just imagine how many love songs are still to be written by kids who step out of survival modality and can finally put down their weapons of choice.
My friend’s son is frankly bored and that’s totally okay. To be expected. Again the issue is is that there’s no map, no model, no guides to say what I so wish I could go back in time and say to myself,
“Hey, you’re unhappy and unsatisfied and desperate to get out of a great job, you feel the bonds of marriage, you fear that you’re settling and not experiencing your best self. I get that. But there’s a huge difference between being unsatisfied or stuck and spinning in circles versus whats going on with you which is being content and looking for the next challenge. You’re feeling unhappy because you’re satisfied. You have a great job, you’re in great health, you have a great relationship, great friends, great dog, great cat, great house and now you want the next challenge and that’s all that’s going on. Don’t go ripping out the bottom rungs of the ladder you just worked so hard to climb (sell your house, quit your job, sabotage your relationship) because that’s not where the issue lies. There are a million therapists out there who are more than happy to go excavating in your misery but what you need more than anything is to find a meaningful next challenge.”
For some that could be starting a family, taking a risk and starting a business, or traveling or whatever but one thing I’ve come to recognize as a signature of this stage of human development is that for sure you want to be out from under any dominator hierarchy like an organization. You know you’re at the highest levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy when freedom becomes your most pressing concern. You want to be free so that you can truly take on the you that is becoming.
Bottom line: don’t go tearing the rungs below you on the ladder you just worked so hard to climb… it might feel like a pair of “golden handcuffs” but the reality is your challenge isn’t behind you it’s ahead.
A powerful image to keep in your head this next stage is Jakob’s Ladder…